6 Tips for Creating Supporting Characters

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6 Tips for Creating Supporting Characters

Chapter 5 “Characters” – Section 4 “Supporting Types”

Green Bat 1 by DesdemonaDeBlake

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Although my heart may be weak, it's not alone. It's grown with each new experience. And it's found a home with all the friends I've made. I've become a part of their heart, just as they've become a part of mine.” -
-Sora (protagonist of Kingdom Hearts)

Great stories are hardly ever about only a hero or a villain who fight obsessively to the bitter end. In a great story, there is an entire world of characters who not only love, fight, support, challenge, teach and invest in your character's life, but who make your protagonist into the person that they are. And when created with care, these supporting characters fill the world of your story with an incredible level of depth, mystery, and realism. Today, I'm going to give you some tips for writing supporting characters who will matter to your story.

Tip 1: Understand and identify which of your characters are supporting characters.

Let's start by identifying the supporting characters in your story. Supporting characters will be all of those who contribute majorly to the plot or to the development of your major characters (so this does not include your one-scene characters); however, they will not have their own entire story-arch that is focused upon in the novel. These characters include love interests, sidekicks, mentors, parental figures, teachers, best friends, nemesis's that are not quite antagonists, etc... All of these should serve to make your story more lively, to help it move forward, and provide substantial interactions with your primary or secondary characters.

Tip 2: Identify how they contribute to the Story—their role—and then branch from it.

It is important to determine what role that each character plays in your protagonists' and antagonists' lives. Once you figure that out, write it down and then recognize that this role is as much that character's identity as a single personality aspect is the sum total of any real person, which is to say not at all. One attribute or relationship dynamic should never be able to define a complex and realistic character. The difference that this will create in your supporting characters will be as dramatic as the difference between all of the wonderful teacher characters in “Harry Potter” and the “Peanuts” teachers who were almost completely irrelevant to the world. So begin taking steps to getting to know these characters as well as you know your protagonist, starting with what you know. If your supporting character is a mentor to the protagonist, for example, what are the personality attributes that led to that? Are they wise and altruistic enough to want to make the world a better place through teaching, or are they a rebellious sort who wants to train the student just because everyone else considers it a waste of time? What life events gave them these personality attributes? Simply continue to branch out until your character begins to take on a life that feels unique and totally their own.

Tip 3: Write down how each supporting character sees/would see the other characters in the story.

While your mentor character may be that to your protagonist, he/she is some other character's child, enemy, lover, and/or friend. By assessing how one supporting character relates to others, you will begin to see them outside the context of what they represent to the protagonist and initially to the reader. To Harry Potter, for example, Dumbledore was a mentor and almost even a father figure; yet this same character shared a much more complicated relationship with Professor Snape, with whom he butted heads, disagreed with frequently, and yet trusted to kill him. Just like every wizard had a different relationship with Dumbledore, your supporting characters should relate to the other characters each in a unique way. The more complex and mixed these relationships are, the more wonderfully human each particular supporting character will become. Remember that even the lousiest, scumbag villain can be the greatest hero to the beggar who he/she occasionally buys a beer.

Tip 4: Make sure there is enough story for each supporting character to create a Plot Premise.

Unless you want your supporting characters to be cardboard cutout characters, each should have their own goal, struggles, obstacles in achieving that goal, and a resolution where they try to rise to the challenge—their own story of success, failure, or transformation. In other words, Dumbledore needs to be out there hunting down horcruxes, succeeding in gaining information, and failing in getting terribly cursed, even if the story only hints at these events. If he just sits in his office, waiting for Harry to come and ask him for his advice every now and then, then he is the same level world-decoration and plot-device as the moving staircases. While supporting characters will not be featured enough to merit a full plot outline, at least one that your story will focus on, it is still important that each of them be affected by the story taking place. Using the plot premise will help you to discover each supporting character's place in the story, but without the unnecessary tedium of doing an entire outline.

Tip 5: Combine and get rid of non-essential Supporting Characters.

This is perhaps the hardest part of the process—and there is no shame in waiting until the second or third draft of your novel to do it; I've combined/eliminated characters even into my seventh draft. But ask yourself and really think critically about whether each supporting character's role and presence actually contribute to the plot as a whole. Would things be simplified if one character took on the role of another, and would this make the remaining character more dynamic for it? Would the plot still be completely intact if a certain character were removed? These are excellent questions to ask a writing partner, who is not as emotionally invested in these characters as you will be. And it's extremely difficult, for myself included. But know that you will be doing that unnecessary character a greater honor to leave them out of the story they're not needed in, in order to save them for a story that actually needs them and where they can truly shine.

Tip 6: Test each supporting character by whether you would read a novel devoted to them.

Whether, for each of your supporting characters, you suggest a great story that has already happened in their lives (Hagrid), a great story that we only are managing to see bit and pieces of (Dumbledore), or a great story that will surely happen in the future (Neville Longbottom), each supporting character's life should be interesting enough for it to appear to merit a novel. You gain this with the complexity we spoke about in the other steps, along with a rich history of events that are actually relevant to the plot, if only hinted at. There should be no character so dull, one-dimensional, or boring that we wouldn't care if you removed them from the story altogether. If there is, then you need to work on developing that supporting character until they elicit enough love, hate, annoyance, or strong ambivalence that their presence genuinely matters to the readers.

Weekly Recommended Watching: The Seven Deadly Sins (an action/comedy anime that exemplifies how to give each of your supporting characters powerful stories, identities, and relationships of their own.)

Write-a-Novel Exercise 5.4

On your already growing list of characters, group all of the supporting ones. Establish a list of which characters each character meets/knows throughout the course of the story, the nature of their relationship, and how the characters view each other.

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One-eyeHitomi's avatar
I have a question that is a bit off topic here, but I still feel its important to ask:

How can you tell when you've made your main conflict too complicated? I've been working on a story that involves a bit of a murder/conspiracy,  but I'm afraid that I'm making it too complicated, and that I might have too many characters involved. I'd appreciate some advice, but I will understand if your too busy.

Thanks as always! :-)
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I think your pot becomes too convoluted when your reader can't understand it after giving the plot a little bit of intense thought. Also, if the plot could easily be simplified or relies on an unbelievably large amount of coincidence on multiple levels. I've heard writers say that you get one giant leap of faith for coincidence or something of that nature. 

Does that apply to your plot or were you talking about something a little different?
One-eyeHitomi's avatar
No that actually helps a little. I'll see if my plot can be simplified.
Thanks for the help~ :)
Graeystone's avatar
What's your thought on making a Supporting Character the Main Character at some point?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
You mean like in a sequel?
Graeystone's avatar
In the book itself. Or would that be dishonest?
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Well, I think the "supporting character" who turned out to be the protagonist simply was never a supporting character to begin with. As to whether or not you should use misdirection to make the reader think he/she is a supporting character, it really just depends on your audience and whether you can pull it off effectively. For example, I've always been annoyed with that sort of misdirection, but maybe I'm not the type of reader you are going for, or maybe I've simply never seen it done it a way that didn't seem like a cheap and pointless trick. 
Graeystone's avatar
True. An interesting phenomenon is when the readers find the supporting character(s) more interesting than the main character(s). 
digimonlover101's avatar
On point and beautifully written.
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
I appreciate the kind comment :)
Totenkopfgitarrist's avatar
Nice list. Sadly many supporting characters feel like they were born just to help the protagonist at this one particular point. I always used the simple question of "Could this be a scene with the supporting character as protagonist without feeling weird?", but it's nice too see all this specific points written out :)
DesdemonaDeBlake's avatar
Unfortunately, this is true. I think the problem is that often people just don't know how important the supporting cast are. 
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